FeaturesSpecial Report

Port Harcourt: Is there a link between respiratory tract infections and black soot?

Port Harcourt’s skies are dark and when it rains the waters are black. Soot enters every home, darkening all it falls upon, even with the windows shut. Kpo fire, a reference to illegal refining of petroleum products, creates soot in large quantities and scenes of an apocalyptic nature. An individual with no family history of Asthma suddenly becomes asthmatic. A suckling with blocked nostrils breathes through its mouth. One scholar adds that Soot can inflict ‘irreversible’ damage on aquatic life given its capacity to distort the genes of fish and other organisms. A turn to modular refineries as well as renewable energy appears to be the way forward. The city has exceeded the WHO standard for particulate matter. This investigation supported by the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt Eco, explores the crippling impact of black carbons on human health and the environment.

A scene within Borikiri
Vierra Briggs has blocked nostrils and has to breathe using her mouth.

“Vierra my five months old child has been having recurrent upper respiratory tract infections. At a point her nostrils were blocked and she couldn’t breathe. She was breathing through her mouth,” says Dr. Bieye Briggs, a Senior Health Officer at the Ignatius Ajuru University of Education. His voice rises and falls as he navigates equal amounts of pain and shock. The child is a suckling.

Black discharge
Dr. Briggs continues “She lost weight in less than a month of falling ill. In the mornings black substances issue from her nostrils, and we use wet balls of cotton wool to clean them. My daughter is now breathing well. You can still hear the noise from her breathing, which is absolutely abnormal.”

He reasons that Soot – a product of an incomplete burning process- inhaled in the city today, contributes to the recurrent cases of upper respiratory tract infections which are already widespread, affecting all ages and classes.

Garden city lost
A taxi driver grumbles “When rain falls, the water is black because of carbon in the air. We inhale it and many have developed breathing problems and they cough as well. If you park your taxi overnight, before day break the windscreen is black. When you wash the car, the water is black. Soot is not good for those treating asthma.”

Gas flares at a site in Rivers state

Soot emerges from the numerous illegal refineries. Ross Amabo George, a member of the Rotary Club of Port Harcourt, Eco, comments “The origin of soot has to do with the artisanal refining of petroleum products. We call it Kpo fire. The operators have their farms located in various areas close to petroleum facilities, where they can puncture oil wells, or they buy oil products at cheap prices, and they begin to refine it.

“The only difference between the refining process of the Kpo fire operators and NNPC is the control, in the sense that these boys refine their products in an uncontrolled environment. The refineries produce in a controlled environment.”

All these activities have turned the city once celebrated as the ‘garden city’ on account of its ‘richness in greenery’, into a large Soot factory. Soot is also generated by abattoirs, and the city has well over a hundred of them, tyres used to roast meat at abattoirs, vehicular emissions, gas flares and generators etc.

Serapis-Bey Briggs could not go to school for two weeks, owing to breathing problems

A related point is the fact that New Delhi in India and Lahore in Pakistan, are regarded as the worlds’ most polluted cities. The status owes to a number of factors including industrial and vehicular emissions

Asthma unresponsive to treatment
Dr. Briggs, a public health physician and environmental advocate, has a two year old son who is also being treated for upper respiratory tract infections. Serapis-Bey Briggs missed school for two weeks in October this year. The medical doctor refers to a colleague’s mother who had to be rushed to the facility recently. Hear him: “She was born asthmatic, but in recent times, the frequency of attacks has increased and it is now unresponsive to conventional treatment that would have otherwise arrested the attacks.”

‘It’s spreading’
Emem Okon, Charter President of Rotary Club of Port Harcourt Eco comments “I learnt that people that live in a polluted environment are more vulnerable to Covid-19 infections, which means all of us here are vulnerable, especially the elderly people. Something needs to be done. We have tried to survive with it for the past five years, but how much longer can we hold on? How much longer can people who live in areas with high concentrations of Soot survive? It’s spreading because people in Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa are complaining.” Rivers state took the lead recently by logging 188 new infections at about mid-December this year. Rivers is regarded as the third ‘most hit state’ by the Corona virus.

The situation is scary says Emem Okon

‘Wide spectrum of respiratory issues’
“A lot of people are having respiratory diseases and itchy noses. My company Proxylogistics wants to fund a research to identify a galaxy of asthma patients to see how Soot is aggravating asthma within Port Harcourt. The cases of short breath among people in the city have increased. There are wide spectrums of respiratory issues that have not been studied enough,” adds George. “When people are leaving it affects the economy of the state. It affects tourism, affects businesses. We need to look at this in a holistic way and go beyond the health impact. There is an economic impact which down the line can cause a major problem for the state,” he laments.

WHO standard
“The WHO standard for particulate matter is ten grammes per mmg. Any city that goes above that recommended figure is abnormal. For five years we generated data, the average in Port Harcourt was around 43 mm, and that is extreme. That is very dangerous as against the 10 mm WHO standard,” adds Dr. Perry Tammi who holds a PhD in Environmental Studies, and is part of an emerging group of scholars who have done investigations into Soot.

He lives in Borikiri, a part of Port Harcourt where sale of illegally refined products is an everyday activity, especially around the jetty. There the waters are black and shiny. The Kpo fire refining sites flourish not too far from Borikiri, and a fair number have been abandoned.

Air quality in Port Harcourt is put at 156 for Tuesday December 28 on iqair.com, a reference to air quality experts who provide real time, evidence–based, air quality information. The service is given free to the public. The interpretation indicates that the PM 2.5 in Port Harcourt is currently 12.9 times above the WHO annual air quality guideline value. When air quality reaches 151-200, it is considered unhealthy, indicates the website.

15-year-old Nengi Amakiri is asthmatic, and comes from a family with no history of asthma.

No history of asthma
Nengi Amakiri is 15 years old and lives in Woji, a part of the city heavily impacted by Soot. Smoke from Kpo fire sites are conveyed by winds into Woji, and locals sense the smoke every day. The area plays host to a series of narrow winding roads which may be flooded during the rainy season. Her story is a remarkable one.

She has been diagnosed with pre asthma, and hails from a family which does not have a history of asthma. Nengi fainted twice in October this year. If she enters a stuffy room, her eyes turn red and she becomes weak. The doctor diagnosed pre asthma, and advised that she should always go out with a face mask, keep indoors and that she should avoid smoke filled places.

Soot in excess
According to Mrs. Joy Amakiri “There is no history of asthma in the family. In the presence of the doctor I called my sister in law as well as my elder sister and asked. Both said nobody on both sides has ever had asthma.”

She continues “Soot is normal here. Everybody knows it is here in excess. When you go outside sometimes you recognise that smoke is in the air. I was asking the doctor if we should get her an inhaler. The doctor replied that she is under observation, and therefore there is no need for an inhaler for now. He repeated that we should not allow her to go out and play, especially when the weather is hot.”

Skies pregnant with soot above Borikiri

‘Recurring infections’
“Between 2016 and now, available statistics have shown that the level of respiratory tract infections have risen to about 25% compared to what it used to be, from patients coming to us for clinical evaluation and those sent to us for radiologic diagnosis, says Dr. Ebby Donaldson, a consultant radiologist, Rivers State University Teaching Hospital.

X-rays have doubled
Dr. Donaldson presents some disturbing statistics “I cannot be specific with the data relating to children, but it is increasing significantly. If we look at the number of X rays we do for respiratory tract infections to evaluate children, it has almost doubled. The issue is not only that it has doubled, there is recurrent infection. When you treat over a while, in the next two weeks the child is coming down with respiratory tract infections. You treat the child and in the next two to four weeks, the same patient or child is coming back for the same evaluation. It is a continual thing because of the continual inhalation of organic air pollutant.

Dr. Bieye Briggs attends to 10 persons every day with upper respiratory tract infections

10 patients every day’
Dr. Briggs gives statistics relating to the number of persons presenting with respiratory illnesses “There is barely a day that passes by when I consult in my consulting room that I would not see ten patients out of twenty, that are coming down with upper respiratory tract infections. This has been going on from my observations from the year 2017, and that coincides with the time when soot became manifest in our atmosphere.” This provides a population of at least two hundred (200) persons with respiratory tract infections presenting every month at the same facility.

‘I live in Soot’

“I live right in the middle of the Soot; the area where the refining is done is close to where I live. I live in Borikiri,” says Tonye Nria-Dappa, a journalist who works in the city. We drive through Borikiri and note the many houses and roof tops which have become dark owing to the sustained impact of Soot.

Tonye Nria Dappa says people think its going to rain when the skies turn dark

In a part of the community the sale of illegally refined products continues. Many move about which jerry cans. There is a lot of noise and activity, and the roads have a certain blackness and shine to them, evidence of the illegal trade. Your nostrils inhale the smell of petroleum products.

My daughter began to snore
Nria-Dappa describes the atmosphere in Borikiri “The area will be dark as though it is going to rain, but it will not rain. By the next morning, as you come out you will find on every object that you have, there is this black dust. Whether you close your windows or not it will always find a way into an enclosure. You will find black dust on everything, even food if you leave it uncovered as well as on water. There is no day that we have respite, whether it is raining, or it is not raining. Nobody is spared. Whether you are a child or an adult, as long as you can inhale air into your system, you are bound to be affected by it.” She refers to her daughter who is still in primary school who began to snore recently. She thinks that this is strange.

Soot impacts plants
Dr. Daniel George has been taking his two year old daughter once a month to the hospital for the past one year. It is a case of bronchitis. Hear him: “This is the first time I am hearing of bronchitis. The doctor attributed it to Soot in Port Harcourt. Last Friday she couldn’t go to school because of breathing problems, and breathing problems are becoming very common among children. A lot of children being taken to the hospital have respiratory issues. It’s a big challenge especially among children born four years ago.”

Soot, soot everywhere

Bakana island
“Bakana is an island and at a point we used to witness an influx of visitors every weekend. This was before the advent of soot. Soot has scared away many people. Many do not come to the town again. When the elite come home, they spend a lot and this helps to boost the economy,” explains Fayama Yellowe, who hails from the island. From time to time the weather around the island turns dark, but it’s not the type of darkness which comes before rain. It’s the soot announcing its presence.

Speaking on the economy, he reasons “Our people go to the swamp to pick periwinkles and other fishes. But because of the crude that has taken over the water bodies, you cannot find fish. People are now unemployed. Women who pick periwinkles are now out of business. If you put all these together, you can imagine the kind of poverty, and the economic downturn which the Soot has brought to us.”

When it rains in Bakana Island the harvested waters are black

60% involved in Kpo fire
Yellowe sheds light on health among the locals “I once went along with an NGO to dispense drugs. The most prevalent illness diagnosed was cough and nasal ailments, bronchial infections and cough. Twenty four hours of the day particles are falling on your body in Bakana. This has destroyed our health and our environment, and destroyed our livelihoods.”

According to Yellowe “The illegal refineries have destroyed our natural economy which is fishing. Everybody has drifted to the illegal business. Up to 60%of our people are involved in the Kpo fire business. It is the mainstay activity in Bakana.” Recently, it rained, and it was a light early morning shower. By the time it ended the cement walkways within Bakana had turned black.

It got to Ogoni first
Dr. Nabie Francis is a medical doctor as well as a civil society activist. His words “Niger delta communities have been submerged in soot even from 2007 till date. It has been there. The discussion around it was less, because it was occurring at a rural setting. When its effect got to the city, people began to talk about it. In Port Harcourt the TransAmadi axis has been submerged in Soot for more than fifteen years. This is the industrial hub of the city. The Ogoni part of the state has been submerged in soot, since the period of gas flaring.”

To be concluded

Show More

Leave a comment

Back to top button